Chamberfest: The St. Lawrence String Quartet ain’t Haydn its musical passion

Geoff Nuttall’s got it pretty sweet. He lives in a California town called Portola Valley and can see the Santa Cruz Mountains from his deck.

He’s five miles from his day job at Stanford University where the St. Lawrence String Quartet he co-founded is in residence. And he gets to play, on a regular basis, all the music he loves on his violin with his friends Owen Dalby (violin), Lesley Robertson, viola and Christopher Costanza, cello.

Much of that music was written by an 18th century Austrian. Joseph Haydn is, in Nuttall’s mind, the greatest string quartet composer ever.

“There are 68 quartets and, arguably, 55 of them are total masterpieces. Haydn is the greatest, the most groundbreaking. He set up the model,” Nuttall says.

“We play a lot of Haydn. We just recorded all the Opus 20 series and it changed music history. It’s not considered to be as important a landmark as the late Beethoven quartets but it should be,” he said in an interview. “We selfishly love to play and rehearse his music and we like to share our love of Haydn with audiences.”

And they will share some of that in Ottawa on Jan. 15 as part of the Chamberfest concert series. They will perform String Quartet No. 27 in D major, Hob. III:34, Op. 20, no. 4

Historically, Nuttall says, Haydn influenced everybody.

“Beethoven hand-copied all of Opus 20 as a study. He even orchestrated Opus 20, No. 1. A lot of the innovations we give Beethoven credit — for example using fugues in string quartets, shocking surprises in dynamics and colour changes, emotional romanticism — all those things are in Opus 20. That’s where Beethoven learned his trade.

In an echo of Mozart, Nuttall says, “Haydn could amuse, shock, arouse laughter and deep emotion as no other. That’s the bottom line.

“When you go to hear great music you want to laugh and cry; you want to be shocked, you want to be amused, you want to be amazed. That’s what great music does and that’s what Haydn string quartets do better than any other music in my opinion.”

This is a bit of a crusade for Nuttall.

“We are evangelical.”

He caught the Haydn habit early on as a 12 year old in London, Ontario.

“I remember playing Haydn’s Opus 77 No. 1 in G major with my buddies. It started great and has only gotten better.”

Haydn isn’t the only composer for Nuttall though. The quartet has a best musical buddy in the American John Adams, one of the most performed of contemporary composers.

“He has become a good friend.”

Adams has written three pieces for the quartet, one of them is a concerto which the St. Lawrence will perform January 27 in Tokyo, Nuttall says.

“Our relationship with John is deep and long-standing. We’re lucky because he is super famous and we get to play his music.

“John’s music is based on groove and rhythm. But he has evolved. He’s been influenced by Beethoven for example. He’s a big Beethoven guy.”

In Ottawa, the quartet will play Adams’s String Quartet No. 2. Nuttall says the piece is based upon Beethoven piano sonatas. It’s totally different experience from Haydn, he added.

“It takes guts to steal from Beethoven and make it your own and he succeeds. Stravisnky said ‘Good composers borrow and great composers steal.’ Any of the greats that I know, alive or dead, have just taken in everything they can get their hands on, studied it and been influenced by it. Then they have taken bits and made it all their own. That’s what Beethoven did with Haydn and that’s what Adams has done with Beethoven. That’s how you compose.

“Adams is gifted and imaginative and like a kid in a candy store. He’s alive to the possibilities of the string quartet.”

Nuttall says the quartet will probably record the Adams String Quartet No. 2 in February.

He says the interaction with the composer is a great experience.

“You play it once and he says ‘I have to change this and this’. It’s a great opportunity to work with a musical mind. When you have the composer right there you can ask ‘Is that what you wanted John?’ You can watch how his mind works.”

The final piece on the program is Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat minor, Op. 30.

It is, Nuttall says, a “powerful cry in the wilderness.”

It was composed in 1876, and is the last of his three quartets. It was written in memory of the composer’s friend, the violinist Ferdinand Laub.

“It’s an incredible piece that few know. I don’t understand why. It’s big, hard and long. It’s also a masterpiece. It reaches out and grabs you by the throat and says ‘Feel this.'”

For the past 18 years, the St. Lawrence quartet has been based at Stanford.

“I’m slightly biased. I think this is the best string quartet job in the world. What we have here is unprecedented. We don’t make a ton of money by Silicon Valley scale but we have four real salaries with full benefits. We get incredible support from the arts community of Stanford. We play in a new concert hall. We have a full time assistant and we bring in young quartets from around the world a couple of times a year.”

Their students aren’t going to pursue careers in music. This being Stanford, the students are headed for careers as doctors or engineers. They are studying music for the love of it.

He says there is no residency position like this in Canada. And that’s why the St. Lawrence quartet is in the U.S.

“It’s a no-brainer that there should be one in Canada. I’m hoping some university in Canada will step up and create a position. It pisses me off that it’s a barren wasteland in Canada for young string quartets.”

Nuttall is a passionate exponent of his chosen profession.

His family moved to London, Ont., from College Station, Texas when Nuttall was eight. He started in a Suzuki program right away. He says he  wouldn’t be playing at all if they had stayed in Texas.

“My mom is Canadian, my dad is English. Her family is from the Kitchener-Waterloo area. My dad got job at (the University of) Western and so we moved back.” The luck of the draw.

At age 12, “I did know I loved playing string quartets. Musically speaking there was never any question of what I wanted to do.

“I wasn’t gifted enough to be a soloist. Playing string quartets for me were the ultimate in terms of camaraderie, intimacy and the ability to work endlessly. I learned so much about working with people.

“It’s still amazing to me that I have the life I have and to keep doing it and get paid to do it.”

The St. Lawrence String Quartet
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church
When: Jan. 15 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.